When ChatGPT became a hot topic in education late last year, 8th grade history teacher Drew Yanuszeski knew he wanted to teach his students how to properly use the artificial-intelligence-powered tool that can write anything with just a simple prompt.
Yanuszeski said he knows his students will have questions about AI, and ChatGPT “is the easy version to see how it works.” He plans to introduce his Salk Middle School students to the history behind ChatGPT, why it has suddenly “gone from zero to 100,” and how they could use it in his class.
“Could AI help or hinder society? The answer is yes to both, and that’s how I’m going to frame it when I chat with students,” he added.
Artificial intelligence technologies replicate human-like intelligence by training machines and computer systems to do tasks that simulate some of what the human brain can do. It relies on systems that can actually learn, usually by analyzing vast quantities of data and searching out new patterns and relationships. These systems can actually improve over time, becoming more complex and accurate as they take in more information.
So far, Yanuszeski has mostly been doing his own research on AI, but he has also been pushing his district, the Spokane public schools in Washington state, to provide professional development on what AI is and how it will affect education. District leaders are open to the idea, he said, but they’ve decided they’re not going to do anything yet “because it’s just going too fast. They don’t know what to cover.”
These discussions on whether to provide professional development on AI are playing out in districts across the United States, as the technology becomes increasingly part of the toolbox that educators and students are using and influences what the future will look like.
But some districts—such as New York City—have taken a hard-line approach to ChatGPT specifically, essentially banning it from schools, except for limited use for certain students. That means most teachers are unlikely learning anything about AI in those districts.
Joseph South, the chief learning officer for the International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE, said the major barrier for school districts providing professional development on artificial intelligence right now is that “you have to understand AI, and most of us don’t.”
Why educators need to know about AI
It’s crucial for teachers to be AI literate, to be able to explain what it is, and to understand its powers and limitations, so they can use AI-powered tools responsibly in the classroom and as everyday consumers of the technology, according to experts.
“It’s important for teachers to understand what AI is because the errors that you make in overestimating AI or underestimating AI are significant,” South said.
“If you underestimate AI, you’re more susceptible to misinformation, you’re more susceptible to stealth advertising, and you’re more susceptible to systems that are not working in your best interests,” South added. “If you overestimate what AI can do, then you’re more likely to rely on an algorithm that isn’t ready for prime time, that is not going to give you the best or most accurate information even though it sounds like it is.”
It’s also important for educators to understand AI so they can help their students make sense of a technological development that is predicted to be a huge force in the world, experts say. They believe students need to become smart AI designers and consumers.
“And if students are going to be learning about it, then teachers need to be learning about it,” said Daniela Ganelin, a Stanford University doctoral student focused on education data science who recently co-wrote an educator guide to AI with Stanford Graduate School of Education senior adviser Glenn Kleiman.
What professional development on AI should look like
Professional development on artificial intelligence should get teachers up to speed on what AI is and how to use it and teach about it in their classrooms, according to experts.
Educators will need to learn “pedagogical content knowledge specific to AI,” Ganelin said.
For example, here are some questions that should be tackled, according to experts: What is machine learning? What is a dataset? What are neural networks? What will AI mean for the economy? What are the ethical considerations?
Educators will also need “real time that’s dedicated to it,” said Kleiman, whose work focuses on how technology can enhance teaching and learning. They need time to use the technology both as teachers and as learners, time to try different approaches with students, and opportunities to collaborate with colleagues and talk about what works and what doesn’t.
Policymakers also have a role in all of this, Kleiman said. “In a lot of states, they’ve limited the amount of time for professional learning in teacher contracts. They wanted to increase student learning time—which is critically important particularly after the pandemic—but that came out of teacher learning time. That’s very unfortunate and won’t get us where we need to go with this.”
In Georgia, they’re already beginning the work of building up teachers’ knowledge of AI. The state education department received a grant to build a curriculum for artificial intelligence to use in middle schools; and as part of the grant, teachers receive professional development on the topic and the curriculum, said Bryan Cox, the lead computer science specialist for the department.
More than a dozen teachers have already gone through the pilot professional-development courses since 2021. The teachers have access to self-paced, asynchronous online courses, a professional learning community, and in-person workshops and summits, Cox said.
In June, the department will offer the online professional learning courses to all middle school teachers, “so hopefully we’ll get a groundswell,” Cox said.
‘Education doesn’t move at the speed of AI’
The biggest challenge with AI professional development, according to experts, is that there is a lot of content to cover, and for many teachers who are brand-new to computer science topics, it can get overwhelming and intimidating.
Schools also have a lot on their plates already, as they help students recover from the pandemic, so professional development on AI might not be at the top of the priority list, ISTE’s South said.
Another challenge is the speed at which new AI developments are coming, experts say.
“Education doesn’t move at the speed of AI,” Kleiman said. Districts need time, expertise, and resources to provide professional learning. Those resources will be coming but “not all that quickly,” he said.
Many education technology organizations—such as ISTE, CS for All, Code.org, and AI for K-12—already have some resources for educators to learn more about artificial intelligence and how it can be used in the classroom.
Beyond professional development, the K-12 education system will need to change to adapt to AI, said Hadi Partovi, the founder and CEO of education nonprofit Code.org. Schools will need new curriculum standards, more effective ways for students to do schoolwork, and better ways to measure whether students did the work.
“In the short term, teacher training is honestly a little bit of a Band-Aid to figure out what we can do now, before we figure out a change to the entire system,” Partovi said.